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Mardi Gras King Cake

The King Cake is a New Orleans tradition that involves a pastry, a small plastic baby, and a party. The King Cake is baked with a small plastic baby hidden inside, the person who gets the slice with baby in it has to host the next party.

The traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. These are said to have been chosen in 1892, when the Rex Parade theme "Symbolism of Colors" gave the colors their meanings.

Purple means justice, green means faith, and gold means power.

What's the meaning behind king cake?

The cake got its start a long, long time ago. We're talking the Middle Ages! The first king cakes were made in Europe in celebration of the Catholic Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day (January 6). For those of us who haven't visited a nativity scene in a while, a reminder: It's a celebration of the day when the three wise men were said to have visited baby Jesus and showered him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The French brought the cake with them to Louisiana in the 1870s, and all these years later, it's become synonymous with the French Quarter, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, and all the rest of those good things in New Orleans. But the cake is popular in lots of different cities and states. King cake is very much a seasonal cake—available in early January, at the beginning of carnival season, and then it goes away Ash Wednesday when everyone is giving up something for Lent.

What is king cake?

King cake is a ring of sweet pastry that's covered in lots of icing and purple, yellow, and green sprinkles. Some folks make their king cake more like bread and others prefer a more cakey version—there's no right way. Most are usually flavored vanilla, cinnamon, or some cream cheesy combo. But they're always round with a hollowed-out center—think of it like a crown that you could put on your head if you were feeling particularly festive.

On the outside, king cake is usually covered with delicious icing and oodles and oodles of green, purple, and yellow sprinkles. Those colors aren't random. The green symbolizes faith; purple stands for power, and yellow represents justice. Oh—and there's always a tiny plastic baby hidden in there too.

Why is there a plastic baby in a king cake?

Don't worry! It's not that little, so there's no fear that you're going to eat it without knowing. The plastic baby just makes eating king cake more fun. In fact, it kind of makes it a sport. Everyone wants to find that little baby. Some say the little baby is Baby Jesus, and others just think of him as a symbol of luck or prosperity. Whoever gets the slice with the baby is "crowned" king or queen for the day and is said to be on his or her way to a very good year. So not only do you get to eat cake, but you basically have a shot at becoming royalty, if only for one day.

So how do you make a king cake?

You could make it from scratch—there are tons of recipes online that can meet almost all needs and skill levels, but the basics remain the same. You whip up a sweet brioche dough and then plop in a ton of cinnamon and/or a flavorful cream cheese filling, twist the dough into a ring, and then bake it. Don't forget to drop in the tiny plastic baby! After it's baked and completely cooled, you pile on the icing and a lot of sprinkles.

Ingredients PASTRY:

  • 1 cup milk

  • ¼ cup butter

  • 2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast

  • ⅔ cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)

  • ½ cup white sugar

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt

  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

  • 5 ½ cups all-purpose flour


  • 1 cup packed brown sugar

  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

  • ⅔ cup chopped pecans

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour

  • ½ cup raisins

  • ½ cup melted butter


  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar

  • 1 tablespoon water


  • Step 1

Scald milk, remove from heat, and stir in 1/4 cup of butter. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in the warm water with 1 tablespoon of white sugar. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.

  • Step 2

When the yeast mixture is bubbling, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the eggs. Stir in the remaining white sugar, salt, and nutmeg. Beat the flour into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.

  • Step 3

Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 2 hours. When risen, punch down and divide dough in half.

  • Step 4

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease 2 cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.

  • Step 5

To Make Filling: Combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, chopped pecans, 1/2 cup flour, and 1/2 cup raisins. Pour 1/2 cup melted butter over the cinnamon mixture and mix until crumbly.

  • Step 6

Roll dough halves out into large rectangles (approximately 10x16 inches or so). Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough and roll up each half tightly like a jelly roll, beginning at the wide side. Bring the ends of each roll together to form 2 oval-shaped rings. Place each ring on a prepared cookie sheet. With scissors make cuts 1/3 of the way through the rings at 1-inch intervals. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

  • Step 7

Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Push the doll into the bottom of the cake. Frost while warm with the confectioners' sugar blended with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water.

Cook's Note:

Make sure to buy a new small plastic baby so you can get the full effect from this cake! Sprinkle with purple, green, and gold sugar, or decorate with whole pecans and candied cherries. Note: Be sure to tell everyone to inspect their piece of cake before they begin eating it. To be extra careful, use a plastic toy baby that is too large to swallow, or hide an orange wedge or 3-4 pecan halves inside the cake (avoid items that may hurt someone's teeth) and then simply place the honorable toy baby outside on the top of the cake for all to see and adore!

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